Fifth Business – The Deptford Trilogy #1 by Robertson Davies

At her mother’s wedding Lorene was in tearing high spirits. Champagne dissolved her few inhibitions, and she banged and thumped her way among the guests, wet-chinned and elated. “I”m just the luckiest kid in the world today,” she whooped. “I’ve got a wonderful new Daddy, my Daddy-Boy — he says I can call him Daddy-Boy. Look at the bracelet he gave me!”

In the goodness of her innocent heart Lorene tried to be friendly with David and Caroline. After all, were they not one family now? Poor Lorene did not know how many strange gradations of relationship the word “family” can imply. Caroline, who had never had a pleasant disposition, was extremely rude to her. David got drunk and laughed and made disrespectful remarks in an undertone when Boy made his speech in response to the toast to the bride.

Rarely is there a wedding without its clown. Lorene was the clown at Boy’s second marriage, but it was not until she fell down — champagne or unaccustomed high heels, or both — that I took her into an anteroom and let her tell me all about her dog, who was marvellously clever. In time she fell asleep, and two waiters carried her out to the car.


Denyse had the normal dislike of a woman for the friends her husband has made before he married her, but I felt she was more than usually severe in my case. She possessed intelligence, conventional good looks, and unusual quality as an intriguer and politician, but she was a woman whose life and interests were entirely external. It was not that she was indifferent to the things of the spirit; she sensed their existence and declared herself their enemy. She had made it clear that she consented to a church wedding only because it was expected of a man in Boy’s position; she condemned the church rite because it put women at a disadvantage. All her moral and ethical energy, which was abundant, was directed towards social reform. Easier divorce, equal pay for equal work as between men and women, no discrimination between the sexes in employment — these were her causes, and in promoting them she was no comic-strip feminist termagant, but reasonable, logical, and untiring.

Boy often assured me that underneath this public personality of hers there was a shy, lovable kid, pitifully anxious for affection and the tenderness of sex, but Denyse did not choose to show this aspect of herself to me. She had a fair measure of intuition, and she sensed that I regarded women as something other than fellow-citizens who had been given an economic raw deal because of a few unimportant biological differences. She may even have guessed that I held women in high esteem for qualities she had chosen to discourage in herself. But certainly she did not want me around the Staunton house, and if I dropped in, as had been my habit for thirty years, she picked a delicate quarrel with me, usually about religion. Like many people who are ignorant of religious matters, she attributed absurd beliefs to those who were concerned with them. She had found out about my interest in saints; after all, my books were not easy to overlook if one was in the travel business. The whole notion of saints was repugnant to her, and in her eyes I was on a level with people who believed in teacup reading or Social Credit. So, although I was asked to dinner now and then, when the other guests were people who had to be worked off for some tiresome reason, I was no longer an intimate of the household.

Boy tried to smooth things over by occasionally asking me to lunch at his club. He was more important than ever, for as well as his financial interests, which were now huge, he was a public figure, prominent in many philanthropic causes, and even a few artistic ones, as these became fashionable.

I sensed that this was wearing on him. He hated committees, but they were unavoidable even when he bossed them. He hated inefficiency, but a certain amount of democratic inefficiency had to be endured. He hated unfortunate people, but, after all, these are one’s raw material if one sets up shop as a philanthropist. He was still handsome and magnetic, but I sensed grimness and disillusion when he was at his ease, as he was with me. He had embraced Denyse’s rationalism — that was what she called it — fervently, and one day at the York Club, following the publication and varied reviews of my big book on the psychology of myth and legend, he denounced me petulantly for what he called my triviality of mind and my encouragement of superstition.

He had not read the book and I was sharp with him. He pulled in his horns a little and said, as the best he could do in the way of apology, that he could not stand such stuff because he was an atheist.

“I’m not surprised,” said I. “You created a God in your own image, and when you found out he was no good you abolished him. It’s a quite common form of psychological suicide.”

I had only meant to give him blow for blow, but to my surprise he crumpled up.

“Don’t nag me, Dunny,” he said. “I feel rotten. I’ve done just about everything I’ve ever planned to do, and everybody thinks I’m a success. And of course I have Denyse now to keep me up to the mark, which is lucky — damned lucky, and don’t imagine I don’t feel it. But sometimes I wish I could get into a car and drive away from the whole damned thing.”

“A truly mythological wish,” I said. “I’ll save you the trouble of reading my book to find out what it means: you want to pass into oblivion with your armour on, like King Arthur, but modern medical science is too clever to allow it. You must grow old. Boy; you’ll have to find out what age means, and how to be old. A dear old friend of mine once told me he wanted a God who would teach him how to grow old. I expect he found what he wanted. You must do the same, or be wretched. Whom the gods hate they keep forever young.”

He looked at me almost with hatred. “That’s the most lunatic defeatist nonsense I’ve ever heard in my life,” he said. But before we drank our coffee he was quite genial again.

Although I had been rather rough I was worried about him. As a boy he had been something of a bully, a boaster, and certainly a bad loser. As he grew up he had learned to dissemble these characteristics, and to anyone who knew him less well than I it might have appeared that he had conquered them. But I have never thought that traits that are strong in childhood disappear; they may go underground or they may be transmuted into something else, but they do not vanish; very often they make a vigorous appearance after the meridian of life has been passed. It is this, and not senility, that is the real second childhood. I could see this pattern in myself; my boyhood trick of getting off “good ones” that went far beyond any necessary self-defence and were likely to wound, had come back to me in my fifties. I was going to be a sharp-tongued old man as I had been a sharp-tongued boy. And Boy Staunton had reached a point in life where he no longer tried to conceal his naked wish to dominate everybody and was angry and ugly when things went against him.

As we neared our sixties the cloaks we had wrapped about our essential selves were wearing thin.


Mrs. Dempster died the year after Boy’s second marriage. It came as a surprise to me, for I had a notion that the insane lived long and had made preparations in my will for her maintenance if I should die before her. Her health had been unimpaired by the long and wretched stay in the city asylum, and she had been more robust and cheerful after her move to the country, but I think my foolish talk about Paul broke her. After that well-meant piece of stupidity she was never “simple” again. There were drugs to keep her artificially passive, but I mistrusted them (perhaps ignorantly) and asked that so far as possible she be spared the ignominy of being stunned into good conduct. This made her harder to care for and cost more money. So she spent some of her time in fits of rage against me as the evil genius of her life, but much more in a state of grief and desolation.

It wore her out. I could not talk to her, but sometimes I looked at her through a little spy-hole in her door, and she grew frailer and less like herself as the months passed. She developed physical ailments — slight diabetes, a kidney weakening, and some malfunctioning of the heart — which were not thought to be very serious and were controlled in various ways; the doctors assured me, with the professional cheeriness of their kind, that she was good for another ten years. But I did not think so, for I was born in Deptford, where we were very acute in detecting when someone was “breaking up”, and I knew that was what was happening to her.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson